FL farmers came to the state capital to get relief from Idalia’s destruction; lawmakers are helping

By: - November 7, 2023 7:00 am

Timothy Solano is a Cedar Key clam farmer. (Photo credit: Mitch Perry)

Timothy Solano is a second-generation clam farmer from Cedar Key who said that before Hurricane Idalia hit North Florida last August, his company was on track to break $50 million in sales this year. But not anymore.

“When Hurricane Idalia barreled through our town, it changed our lives forever,” Solano told the House Appropriations Committee on Monday during a special legislative session this week. He said the storm destroyed crab traps, docks, trees and other building materials, and clam bags were torn up and swept out to sea.

“These losses and the timing of the storm are particularly devasting to us because December and November are the biggest months in the industry with the holidays,” Solano said. “And with the debt that we have, a lot of us are not going to be able to do our holiday orders.”

Now, Solano and other farmers are about to get help from the state of Florida in the form of grants and tax breaks in a legislative proposal estimated to be around $416 million. The money and tax breaks are aimed to recover from Idalia, which made landfall in Taylor County in Florida’s Big Bend region on Aug. 31.

While Idalia did not produce the loss of life that 2022’s Hurricane Ian did in Southwest Florida, it had a devastating impact on Florida’s agricultural industry, with losses estimated by the Department of Agriculture in late September to be near $450 million.

Rod Land said that Idalia’s power created more than $200,000 of damages at his farm in Lafayette County in North Florida. He also said he was extremely grateful for the support.

“Y’all are the first Legislature in my lifetime that has recognized any importance of agriculture to the state of Florida,” he told lawmakers Monday afternoon. “I ask you to give us the help that we need to survive and to thrive in agriculture in the state of Florida.”

The legislation provides $50 million for the Hurricane Recovery Grant Program for local governments within counties designated in the FEMA disaster declaration for Hurricane Idalia. Other measures include:

•$10 million from the State Transportation Trust Fund to the Department of Transportation for the Small County Outreach Program in the 2023-2024 fiscal year, specifically for transportation projects within counties designated in the federal disaster declaration related to Hurricane Idalia;

•$3 million to the Department of Emergency Management to provide planning and design grants for new emergency operations facilities in fiscally constrained counties impacted by Hurricane Idalia;

•$5 million to the Department of Commerce to award Rural Infrastructure Fund grants to fiscally constrained counties impacted by Hurricane Idalia.

•The legislation also provides a sales and use tax exemption for the purchase of certain building materials used to repair or replace nonresidential farm buildings that were damaged as a direct result of Hurricane Idalia.

“It’s going to offer a lot of benefits to these rural counties that otherwise would be left behind and forgotten,” said Republican Jason Shoaf, the bill sponsor in the Florida House (HB-1C).  Both Shoaf and the Senate sponsor of the bill — Republican Corey Simon in the Senate (SB-2C) — represent residents in the Big Bend area south of Tallahassee who were deleteriously impacted by Idalia.

The biggest financial part of the package is $181 million to the My Safe Florida Home program. That’s the program which provides free home inspections and grants up to $10,000 to harden Floridians’ windows, doors and roofs.

“Your timing is right now is perfect, because we’re out of hurricane season and it would be nice to be able to empower those homeowners to seize this opportunity when the winds not blowing to make as many of those improvements as humanly possible, so when we do get in the hurricane season in the spring and summer that the homes are hardened and the savings are realized,” said Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, in addressing the House Appropriations Committee.

Though lawmakers from both parties praised the legislation, Senate Democrats Lori Berman, of Palm Beach County, and Linda Stewart, of Orlando, raised some objections to one provision of the bill in the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee meeting.

That particular section includes extending legislation passed earlier this year that prohibits local governments in ten Florida counties within 100 miles of the landfall of Hurricanes Ian and Nicole from adopting more restrictive comprehensive plans or land development regulations. That order was set to expire on October 1, 2024, but the new legislation extends that out until October 1, 2026.

The counties affected are Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands, Lee, Manatee, and Sarasota counties.

Environmental groups also raised objections to that section of the bill.

“This provision would prevent local governments in 10 counties from enacting additional sound planning measures to ensure that their communities are safer and more resilient from future storms and not stuck in a cycle of destruction,” said Paul Owens, the president of 1,000 Friends of Florida.

“If we prohibit them from proposing or adopting more proactive measures to their comprehensive plans or land development regulations for the next three years putting them at a disadvantage to other counties still at liberty to adopt measures to protect lives, property and tax dollars in their communities. Ostensibly, this provision would allow property owners to rebuild homes and businesses damaged by Hurricane Ian, but in practice it could be used to prevent measures to harden or raise buildings in areas prone to storm surge or flooding or to prevent construction in the most dangerous areas. These and other proactive measures could be critical when the next storm hits.”

During the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee meeting, state Sen. Stewart noted that while the state was contributing more to the My Safe Florida Home program to help Floridians better prepare their homes for storms, they also need to refocus on attempting to collect nearly $350 million in energy rebates programs that the federal government has allocated to the state but still has not been accessed.

“That would go a long way to improving this program and allow more people to take advantage of hardening of the homes,” Stewart said. “And this is really what this is about, we need to do that so we can keep those premiums down so we can keep our constituents’ homes in less repair when there is a hurricane.”

Phoenix reporter Jackie Llanos contributed to this report.

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.